You Be the Tenth Justice: Is Sentencing a Minor Convicted of Murder to Life Without Parole ”Cruel and Unusual”?

Back in the day, if a teenager was tried as an adult and found guilty of capital murder, he could be sentenced to death. This was referred to as the “juvenile death penalty,” though in fact the last time a minor was actually executed in the United states was in 1959. In reality, though the killers were in their teens at the time of their offenses, they were generally executed when they were in their 20s or 30s.

(In 2003 I wrote a Crime, Justice and America cover story about the “juvenile death penalty,” and how opponents were campaigning against it by implying that a child was actually being executed (the subject of the campaign was 25 at the time). With this in mind, when the magazine’s art director asked me to suggest a cover illustration I said “Oh, just show a baby sitting on an electric chair.” I was kidding, but she didn’t realize that)

In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that nobody could be executed for crimes committed while under the age of 16, but a year later declined to raise the age to 18. Seventeen states set their minimum age at 16, and five at 17.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that nobody could be executed for crimes committed while under the age of 18. In all, fewer than twenty men — they were all men — had executed since the death penalty’s 1976 reinstatement for crime committed as teenagers. The 2005 ruling cancelled the death sentences of about 80 men nationwide.

Last week, the Supreme Court announced that later in the current session, it will review Miller v Alabama and Jackson v Hobbes, to determine whether it’s constitutional impose a sentence of life without parole LWOP) on a minor convicted of murder (last year, they ruled that a minor convicted of a crime other than murder can’t be sentenced to LWOP).

Miller and Jackson were both 14 when they committed their crimes, an arson murder and a murder during commission of a robbery respectively, which could complicate the Supreme Court’s ruling: the justices could rule halfway on this, setting the bar at 16 as they did in 1988.

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One Response to You Be the Tenth Justice: Is Sentencing a Minor Convicted of Murder to Life Without Parole ”Cruel and Unusual”?

  1. James Pollock James Pollock says:

    The logic of treating minors differently from adults in the juvenile justice system is the idea that minors are not able to think clearly and effectively, and it is therefore wrong to punish them the same as an adult. We have lots of laws that assume that minors just don’t have the same capacity for thought and understanding of their actions. So minors may disavow contracts, there are statutory rape laws that provide that the underage cannot give meaningful consent to sex, and a juvenile justice system that imposes less-harsh punishments on people.

    The problem was the minors can and do commit crimes, nasty felonies that require more than a slap on the wrist. Under the old system, juveniles could be sentenced within the juvenile system, but once they achieved majority (usually 21), were freed. This meant that a lot of people who did horrible crimes were effectively getting short sentences for them, so states started allowing juveniles to be charged in the adult system, facing the same prison sentencing as an adult would. The problem in this approach is that it changes the justice systems response based on the nature of the crime rather than on the nature of the criminal.
    Philosophically, the purposes of the justice system include punishing the guilty, deterrence, and rehabilitation of the criminal. Since keeping a person imprisoned is expensive, we want the prison sentence to be long enough to meet these goals, but not longer. A sentence of life-without-parole represents a decision that no amount of prison time will serve to rehabilitate this particular criminal. If the sentence was given to a particularly young offender, it may not be correct.
    So, we know that detention until majority for young offenders doesn’t serve the deterrent purpose. But we reason that life-without-parole costs the public money that might be better served in other services.

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